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News Attics and Basements and Closets, Oh My! Part 2: Family Albums

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While those of us in the conservation department are working from home, we are finding comfort in our family heirlooms and treasures—many of which require our attention. Like so many around the country, we are finally taking the time to clean out our closets, sort through our attics, and look through our family albums. While we all turn to our family treasures for comfort during these trying times, the conservation department would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections.

Each week a different student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation will address ways to care for the collections in your cupboards. Last week’s post focused on photographic prints. This week’s post focuses on family albums and was written by Rachel Bissonnette, a first-year LACE (Library and Archives Conservation Education) Fellow. 

​Left: Use clean towels to support your album while it is open. Right: First-year WUDPAC students Rachel Bissonnette (l) and Nylah Byrd (r) examining an album together. (Images courtesy of Annabelle Camp and Debra Hess Norris.)

Family Albums

In our previous post we discussed simple preventive measures you can take at home to care for your family photographs. For many of us, this also means caring for our family albums or scrapbooks. Albums embody shared memories and help us trace our family roots. Each page of these treasured heirlooms can spark a conversation or story about the people and places thoughtfully documented by our loved ones. 

An album is a book form intended for mounting usually flat objects, such as photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, or programs/brochures. Additional ephemera found in albums can often include pressed flowers, swatches of cloth, locks of hair, buttons, and stamps. 

Albums are great because they protect the materials inside, but how can we protect our albums? While there are many different types of albums, there are some general guidelines you can follow when caring for yours. 

It may be tempting to use this time to take the photos out of your family album and reorganize them, but an important aspect of preserving an album is maintaining the order. This prevents what we call in the field of conservation “dissociation,” which results in the loss of information about an object. Whoever put the content in the album initially chose the arrangement with care, and if the album is taken apart, this information would be lost. What connects us to our family albums is not only the photographs within, but also the decisions people made when they put the album together. Disbinding or disassembly are decisions that should be made with a conservator or preservation specialist.  

There may be physical parts of album structures that are vulnerable, e.g. the pages or the spine. Here are some steps you can take at home to safely handle your album:

  • Wash your hands (we are really good at doing this now to protect ourselves from germs)! Washing your hands helps to prevent oils and grime from getting on your album.
  • While you have your album open, you want it to be adequately supported as to not put undue stress on the spine of the book. You can roll up clean towels to form a support.
  • The paper may be weak and/or the photographs loose on the pages, so turn pages carefully. Colored paper can be especially acidic and prone to damage. If the pages are too weak to handle or are causing stains, you may need to place acid-free paper between the leaves. These materials can be ordered from an archival storage materials supplier
  • If there is loose content, keep it with the album. You can place loose photographs in acid-free envelopes or folders and tuck the folders between the pages where you found them, so the order is maintained. 
  • It may be tempting to take photocopies of pages to share with far-away friends and family; however, placing your album on a scanner may pose undue risk to the structure. It is best to seek a professional’s help if you want to photocopy a page, but you can always snap a picture with your phone!

When you have finished enjoying your album, you will want to store it safely. An archival box is ideal, but a plastic tub works well, too. Avoid storing your album in an [acidic] cardboard box! The safest place in your home is an interior closet because you want to minimize light exposure and temperature/humidity fluctuations.

Revisiting our family albums and scrapbooks can remind us of joyous moments and happy occasions when we were able to gather with our loved ones. Until the next time we can gather together to share our albums, we can practice safe handling of our collections to ensure that our heirlooms are well-cared for. 

​There are many different types of albums and safe handing can ensure they are well-preserved for future generations to enjoy. (Image courtesy of Annabelle Camp.)

We hope you've enjoyed this entry in our series focused on caring for your family heirlooms. You are in our hearts and minds as collectively we focus on saving lives. We hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. When we emerge from this global crisis we must and will rely on art and culture, preserved for today and for future generations, to foster joy, well-being and hope. We encourage you to visit our web site for regular updates on our department of art conservation and news coverage of our treasured students and alumni at home and abroad.

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This week’s post focuses on caring for our family albums or scrapbooks—treasured heirlooms that embody shared memories and help us trace our family roots.

​This week’s post focuses on caring for our family albums or scrapbooks—treasured heirlooms that embody shared memories and help us trace our family roots. 

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Attics and Basements and Closets, Oh My! Part 2: Family Albums
  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489